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17th Jun 2019

Toy Story IRL: How two brothers spent nearly a decade remaking the Pixar classic with real toys

Wil Jones

Movie remakes don’t have the best reputation

For many, they are symptomatic of the current lack of originality and ideas in big budget filmmaking. Why risk doing something new when you can just rehash an existing IP with an in-built fanbase? Some estimates say there over a hundred remakes currently in the works, with new versions of everything from Ace Ventura and Gremlins, to The Lion King and Scarface (itself a remake) all in some stages of production. You just need to dive into the comments sections below any news story on those to see the bile and hatred they provoke.

Now Toy Story 3 can be added to this list. But before you get the pitchforks out on social media, this is a very different remake. It is not going to ruin your childhood. It is not from, or even authorised, by Disney or Pixar.

And it might just warm your heart a little.

Morgan, 22, and Mason, 19, McGrew are two brothers from outside Des Moines, Iowa, who have spent the last seven years or so recreating Woody and Buzz Lightyear’s third adventure, completely shot-for-shot, in live-action, with real toys standing in for the characters.

So far, only two trailers for Toy Story 3 IRL have seen the light of day, but the effect is startling. Pixar notably picked toys as the subject matter as the nascent early 1990s CGI technology was far better at recreating shiny plastic than organic skin. But to see actual toys comes to life, in the real world, gives the familiar characters – pardon the pun – a whole new dimension.

And yes, these were toys that Morgan and Mason had played with when they were young. “We had some of the toys from when we were kids,” Morgan tells me over email. “Others we found elsewhere – school, day-cares, parks, etc.” It gives the film a whole extra level – when the Woody and Buzz memorably face the existential crisis of their owners growing up and no longer being played with, some of these are real discarded toys that have actually had that happen to them.

Their Toy Story is a combination of various techniques, and has all been shot on iPhones. Woody, Buzz and the rest mostly move in stop-motion, with the brothers having customised and modified the off-the-shelf toys to be poseable for their animation needs.

The human characters are played by their friends, family and school teachers. Morgan plays Andy, and Mason is grown-up garbage man Sid. Kids from a local day-care fill in as extras.

The toys have all been meticulously synced up to original audio from the movie, with just the human actors providing their own voices.

“It is over 90% stop motion animation,” explains Morgan. “No CGI effects. Some compositing, but we want this to look as handcrafted as possible. It creates a warm, believable feeling, I think.”

The brothers began the gargantuan task in the summer of 2011, and over seven years later, it still isn’t complete. The dedication to recreating each individual shot is remarkable.

Their Facebook is littered with tons of photos documenting their efforts, and periodically they’ve released short clips and updates to their YouTube.

In 2015, their impeccably-observed Andy’s room set went viral. Every poster, every piece of furniture, is in exactly the right place. Even the family dog fills in for Andy’s pet dachshund Buster. Any birthday or holiday cash the Morgan and Mason receive has gone on buying props and equipment.

“This isn’t all we do,” points out Morgan. “We do have lives outside of this: school, jobs, internships, commitments, etc. Throughout those years, we worked on it whenever we could and that is still how we’re going about this. [We] didn’t think it would take this long.

“I’ve wanted to throw in the towel at times. But I will not quit something I started. We both like seeing things through to the end. It’s only fair to ourselves and those involved.”

This isn’t the first shot-for-shot, ultra-faithful fan remake of a beloved classic to made, by any means though. In 1982, three Mississippi 12-year-olds named Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb began remaking Raiders Of The Lost Ark, taking seven summers to complete the entire film.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation finally premiered in 1989, with the trio drastically changing ages from scene to scene. Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb’s achievement became the stuff of film-geek legend, and an acclaimed documentary on them has become a cult favourite itself. A fictionalised Hollywood film of their story has been long in production, but currently appears mired in development hell.

Another George Lucas creation has also received a similar treatment: Star Wars Uncut is 2010 shot-for-shot recreation made of 473 fifteen-second segments by a whole range of different filmmakers. The styles used vary wildly – you’ll be watching a rather faithful live-action adaption, then fifteen seconds later, it’ll be animation.

Action figures, Lego, puppets, kids and even dogs take the place of Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill at various points, and you never know what is coming next. It is a wild, wonderful watching experience, and its success has inspired similar crowdsourced projects recreating films such as Shrek and RoboCop.

These remakes are of course never, ever intended to replace or improve on the originals – no one is ever going to pick Star Wars Uncut over A New Hope, no matter how much tampering George Lucas does to it. But it is about ownership, and what these movies mean to people.

The reason people express such strong revulsion at remakes – yet also still turn out to watch them – is that films we love are part of us. And that goes double if they are movies from our childhood. Sony Pictures may legally own the Ghostbusters, but to anyone who saw the film at the cinema on their tenth birthday, or watched it on television at their grandparents’ house, or spend many afternoons wearing out the VHS tape with their siblings, it is far more than just a IP.

There is a lot of real talent on show in Star Wars Uncut, and some might wonder why those creators would waste their time Xeroxing existing art when they could be creating something of their own. But really, it is about reclaiming the stories from their massive conglomerate owners. Our RoboCop Remake came out in 2014, the same year as the official Gary Oldman-starring reboot. That film was perfectly acceptable, but utterly forgettable. Our RoboCop Remake however was full of the anarchic subversion that made Paul Verhoeven’s original so great. RoboCop is far more than just a robot cop and a trademark, and the fan made version was the one that got that.

That love is clear in Morgan and Mason’s tribute movie. “Toy Story 3 is our favourite film,” says Morgan. “We both think it’s an incredible story. Toy Story and all of Pixar’s films mean the world to us. We grew up with them.”

Both brothers aim to go on and work in film – Morgan has just graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Media, Mason is studying for the same, and the film will make a pretty impressive show reel.

The brothers have a September 19th, 2019 release date planned for their version of Toy Story 3. To put this in perspective, Toy Story 4 is finally released, after a long and troubled production, at the end of July 2019, and will have beat them to completion.

But there is still the elephant in the room – Disney could hit them with a cease-and-desist whenever they like, and shut the whole thing down.

“I don’t know about a release yet,” admits Morgan. “Here’s the thing, if Disney wants it down, we’ll have to abide. It is their property.”

“We would then just have to move on, knowing we finished the crazy thing we started.”

And maybe that wouldn’t be the end of the world. The Blu-ray of the real Toy Story 3 will always be there, on the shelf – it doesn’t *need* a fan-made retelling, its not going to go anywhere.

But what is also not going anywhere is the story of the two brothers who spent the best part of a decade remaking their favourite movie, just for the hell of it. Even if the finish project never sees the light of day, it is still one hell of a story.